The many flamingoes of the Atacama Desert

After a long wait, David Attenborough's magisterial Planet Earth 2 finally premiered Stateside.*

I watched the Mountains episode last night, where the short section on flamingo courtship brought back memories of the many trips I made into the Atacama Desert for these birds.

However, what Attenborough neglects to mention, but what is one of the most amazing aspects of this natural history spectacle; all 3 southern cone flamingo species can be seen congregating together in these Andean saltpans.

I can't think of another such dramatic example of sympatry among such ostensibly specialized and ecologically similar species.

Indeed, as late as 1957, the James' Flamingo was thought to be extinct:

A James' flamingo works the edge of the saltpan

That the James' flamingo went unseen was perhaps testament to the difficulty of accessing the altiplano more than its rarity, though it has the most restricted range of any of the 3 species. Salt lakes 15,000 feet above sea level on the border between Bolivia and Chile were not well-travelled regions in the Fifties!

However, compared to its congener the Andean flamingo, the James' is now thought to approach 100,000 birds and has been listed as Near-threatened. The Andean, with a global population under 40,000, is deemed Vulnerable by the IUCN.

Two Andean flamingoes in the shadow of Volcan Licancabur

This is the driest desert in the world, so this water is a critical resource.  

These two sympatric species presumably benefit from some ecological separation, but from my observations they pretty much share the same feeding strategy and habitat requirements. The breeding behaviours differ slightly, with the James concentrating into a very few large colonies, the biggest just over the Bolivian border - not that far as the flamingo flies (there are no crows in the neotropics ;)

A rare side by side comparison of the two Phenicoparrus spp, with James' on the right 

Otherwise known as the Puna Flamingo, and named for its British discoverer, the James' flamingo has finer lamellae than its congeners, enabling it to feed on smaller diatoms and algae. You can almost intuit this in the side by side bill comparison. 

A line-up of Chilean flamingoes

The third species in this otherworldly lake, the Chilean Flamingo, is trans-Andean - with a range that spans 5 countries. But its heartland is here, and it still concentrates in these mixed species flocks with its competitors. After returning back south after my trips to the Atacama I would typically catch up with these guys again in the windswept, glaciated steppe of southern Patagonia - a habitat transition that really shows off their ecological flexibility:

A pretty dramatic contrast! This shot was taken by my brother - the photographer Ben Hall - the first time I took him to Torres del Paine. I think it's been one of this better-selling images, most recently appearing in Attenborough's Planet Earth 2 book accompanying the TV show, as well as cleaning up a few awards. 

Flyout is pretty spectacular in the Atacama too (even if the photographer isn't as good...)

Lest this feels like flamingo overload, other migrants make use of the water resources that are so scarce in this high desert.

Nearctic species are represented by large numbers of Baird's sandpipers, and neotropical species by puna plovers and Andean avocets.

One of these things is not like the others.... Can you find it?

 Striking Andean avocets tumble from the sky - I recorded record counts of this sp. in 2007, but they were one of the more unpredictable inhabitants. 

Up close & personal with a BASA. (I still need this bird in North America!)

One of my favourite waders, the puna plover - this one is a juvenile

Another puna plover, an adult, work the same edges as the flamingoes, albeit with an entirely different strategy

Not wanting to be totally outdone by the avifauna, there are also some pretty cool mammals and reptiles adapted to this extreme xerophytic environment. Here's a very cooperative Liolaemus species.

I really need to improve my herping skills to pin some of these down to species!

Liolaemus sp. (fabiani or andinus?)

A side note on Planet Earth 2; whilst we didn't have to endure Sigourney Weaver usurping the grand master's narration duties, there was some serious misuse of sound design and 'imported' bird calls. It was most noticeable in the Fairy Tern segment, unless you believe the Seychelles were experiencing an unprecedented influx of Nearctic vagrants. Other elements of the sound design were also pretty overblown - I doubt a millipede makes an audible crunching sound when chewing. Of course, this is all in service of transporting the viewer into the life of the subject, but it was pursued with more subtlety in Planet Earth 1. 



I'm been sorting through old sound recordings I made, with the intent of uploading them to their corresponding eBird records, and it's a pretty fascinating process - especially with some of the soundscapes.

In this particular one I was trying to capture the insistent three note call of Green Shrike-vireo above the din of a troop of howler monkeys at dawn.  It's a common canopy bird here in Panama but one that you see once for every 99 times you hear it. It's 3 note call is often aptly transliterated as 'can't-see-me'!

But listening to it again now, it's the background species that really catch my ear:

After the first few listens I could also pick out;
  • the gentle rise and fall whistle of Rufous Mourner
  • the familiar (to me) Black-faced Ant-thrush
  • a Golden-fronted greenlet somewhere close to the mic
  • and a Fasciated Antshrike
But not until listening very carefully around 20 times could I filter out the howler monkeys and separate the other calls enough to hear;
  • Yellow-throated Toucan (or whatever it's being called post-split)
  • Northern Slaty-Antshrike 
  • Southern Bentbill
  • Bright-rumped Attila
And finally... not until an email exchange with one of the locals back in Panama, did I manage to pull out a single faint call note of Forest Elaenia.

Even though I'd consider myself someone who doesn't have a particularly good ear (or memory) for calls, it's amazing what the ear and brain can do if you allow them the time and space to learn.

Also revealing, is how the visualisation of sound helps. Run this same sequence through Audacity and the Forest Elaenia becomes more evident, as does the almost inaudible song of the Southern Bentbill.  When watching the spectrogram scroll by, the elaenia's call note seems fairly obvious, but in the barrage of sound it's almost impossible to hear. Kudos to Kent Livezey for hearing this!

In the middle of the sequence, the 4.0KHZ U-shaped rising call of a Forest Elaenia, visible just before the louder golden-fronted greenlet and over the lower pitched song of Green Shrike-vireo.

Now in the depths of an NY winter there isn't much to record of course, but I'm looking forward to setting up a binaural system to pick up some of these more expansive soundscapes, rather than just recording individual calls and songs, in the Spring.


The Wasteland

For some strange reason I decided to dedicate the whole of Fall migration to birding a 3 acre patch of urban wasteland on the Hudson river.

I've always been a fan of marginal habitats. Some of the most memorable birds are the ones you find in unexpected places. A Black Redstart in a parking lot in central London on New Year's Day. My lifer Indian Scimitar Babbler in a dusty corner of hydroelectric plant. My state Connecticut warbler (two together!) in a graveyard in downtown Manhattan, when I was looking for a something entirely different.

And, the reason for this post, a steady stream of yellow-breasted chats this Fall - right on this neglected bit of littoral habitat one block from my apartment.

Of course, I had to abide by the First Rule of Patch Birding; you can't miss a day.

So, from September 1st until the CBC on the 18th December, no matter the weather or the radar, I birded it. Even on those days with southerly flow when you just know nothing will be on passage.

The Patch, on the elbow of the Hudson river, roughly opposite Chelsea 
(That huge green migrant-trap-of-a-rectangle to the north is Central Park - birds-eye views like this explain a lot....) 

zoomed in...

  ....and a bit more

At first glance, you might be thinking this doesn't look too promising.

Climbing over the first fence gets you access to a gravel parking lot, with a rotting sofa and a couple of waste skips. The best bird you're going to get here is a starling. At least that's what I thought until I found a Lincoln's sparrow.

But vault the second fence and things get better. You're greeted by the only bit of wilderness left on an increasingly gentrified and manicured waterfront. A continuous scrub of goldenrod and false-willow blankets the shore line. The traffic noise drops perceptibly. Large concrete impoundments have been splintered asunder by vigorous succession trees; birch, willow and sumac. The bridge of a sunken barge periscopes from the shallows, and rotting pylons provide perches for the double-crested cormorants that linger into winter.

Looks like a bunch of concrete, but the phoebes love hawking 
insects as they warm up in its radiant heat

 A black-crowned night heron waits for the tide to flood, 
and a poplar grows improbably from the pier.  

Throughout October and into the mild November, Clouded Sulphurs and Monarchs stopped to refuel.

This young night heron spent about 3 weeks here. He eyed me up every visit,  from his favorite tree. He seems to be saying 'get off my patch' - well it's my Patch too ....

This resident kestrel got used to my presence and made a habit of snatching myrtle warblers as they foraged low on the wrack line. 

I found some good birds. But not until I'd repeatedly confirmed the veracity of The Second Law of Patch Birding; leave your camera at home if you want something good to turn up.

After the expected stream of blackpolls, the first good parulid was a Nashville, turning up almost a year to the day, and in the same patch of goldenrod, since my last one in the county. A few days later another one arrived. Nashville's not a bird that's ever dripping from the trees in Hudson County, and is more of a lesson in the migrant trap ability of The Patch than habitat selectivity.

A day or two later the first chat appeared - a hatch year bird. For me this is usually one of those birds that you really just have to luck into. Manhattan had been bursting at the seams with chats all season, so it was especially gratifying to find one on The Patch.

Then, two weeks an adult male turned up. Then in early November, a third! Unless, of course, it was the same bird that managed to stay several weeks - not impossible for this master skulker.

My best morning-flight experience of Fall came on The Patch too. Sitting on the concrete terminus of the pier, I watched yellow-rumps in their hundreds pour off the Hudson river against strong westerlies. I stopped trying to count them once densities reached around 100 'rumps-an-hour, and focused on separating other warblers that were mixed in, mostly palms - with an 80/20 ratio of yellow to western.

My only disappointment was Fall gulling. My Patch had briefly hosted glaucous and kumliens gulls this Spring, and a LBBG the prior Fall. I was hoping to finally get my tenth Hudson river larid, but sometimes the Gull Gods are fickle.

This chickadee was missing all of his retrices, so stuck around a while

Getting some help with the gulling. 

In all, I eked 73 species out of this neglected patch of wasteland (even adding 3 county birds - american pipit, grey-cheeked thrush and the yellow-breasted chats) and unless they lock the gates next spring,  I'm pretty sure I can hit a century.

But more importantly, by watching the same couple of acres for the entire season, I learned a lot...

In no particular order:

1. Gulls, despite their feeding plasticity, are not cannibals... Of the two dead larids that appeared over the season, both went untouched by their congeners.

2. If you watch sparrows closely enough, you can see clinal phenotypic variation correlate with migration timing. Pretty damn cool.

3.  When you start to think you won't get a winter wren all year,  you will.

4. Wintering ruddy ducks are returning later each year, regardless of what Donald Trump says.

5. When you find an orange-crowned warbler it will get eaten by a feral cat right in front of your eyes.

One thing about patch birding is sometimes there's nothing to look at, so you look at ring-bills, 
and they look pretty awesome. 

Having finally lucked into my county Grey-cheeked early in the Fall, what followed was an unrelenting stream of hermits....

If this goldenrod and willow is deep enough to swallow a 7 year old, it's deep enough to 
hide a skulky chat for 3 weeks....

And finally... I have no idea where these chairs came from. They just appeared one October night, amid a scattering of beer cans. But thereafter gave me a nice place to sit and scope the river. 

Postscript: the last day I visited was December 18, for my territory of the Lower Hudson Christmas Count. I was hoping to turn up something good one final time. Instead, I'd been there ten minutes, ticked a cooper's hawk, pished up some swamp sparrows, when three cop cars pulled up and put an hour long dent in my already tight CBC schedule. I showed the cops the Coop, and they eventually let me go after I pointed out the lack of No Trespassing signs. Hopefully they'll have forgotten about my transgressions by spring migration ;)


Sky Dancing

Like its northern counterpart, this southern member of the circus genus - the Cinereous Harrier - fills the classic harrier niche over the grasslands and steppes of the Southern Cone, with a disjunct population in the northern Andes.

For the couple of years I worked out of El Calafate I spent many days (either alone or finding birds for clients) at the small Laguna Nimez nature reserve sandwiched between the town and the vast glacial Lago Argentino.

Here, I got to know one pair of harriers very well, watching their courtship and the eventual rearing of a young harrier.

During the courtship period the birds were very territorial, with both male and female occasionally dive-bombing the heads of any humans that crossed their territory. A bird bearing down on you is fun when it's an arctic tern, but kind of scary when it's a large harrier.  One of my clients even lost a hat.

Getting ready to strafe someone's head - talons out, eyes fixed. 

A big part of harrier courtship is the swapping of gifts - usually a prey item, like a small passerine.

Here you can just see the 'gift' - a small passerine, which I never figured out to species - in the talons of the harrier as she comes over to investigate my presence:

The gift exchange involves some spectacular aerobatics, as one bird twists upside down to make the catch. In weeks of watching, I never saw a drop. Interestingly over the days I watched them, they seemed to retain the same 'gift' as it was passed between the pair, and always carried it in the same talon! Presumably at some point it was 'refreshed' to avoid the risk of parasites.

Here two females court in the air above the marshland. I never figured out why same sex courtship was so prevalent in this location. Worldwide, harriers are pretty notorious for their polygyny (and occasional accounts of polyandry have been recorded in northern hemisphere harriers), as are many marshland species of other avian families, but I never found much documentation of same-sex courtship within harriers, polygynous or otherwise.

Moreover, Simmons, in his Harrier monograph, suggests that polygyny is rare in southern hemisphere taxa:

The female sits in  a senecio bush - about as tall a vantage point as it's possible 
to gain in this xerophytic steppeland.

Most harriers share the owl-like facial disk and the cinereous is no exception. Presumably its parabolic function is a similar adaptation to aural hunting that owls have expressed even further.

The female brings in nesting material 

Hunting involves a technique that is well known in both northern and hen harriers, the tapping of the grass with the wingtips, to flush prey. Here the female exhibits the classic drop-like-a-rock technique.

The sadly defunct quarterly 'coffee table' magazine, Bird Art & Photography, ran some of my harrier shots, (alongside some much better Condor shots of my brother's)...

The position of cinereous harrier in the monophyletic harrier clade also reveals a lot about our own northern harrier.

One reason the NACC should accept the split between hen harrier and northern harrier is that based on mtDNA evidence (although not enough base pairs were tested according to some of the NACC committee) the cinereous harrier is sister to the northern harrier, and closer to it than the purportedly 'conspecific' hen harrier of the western palearctic.

Even the BOU recognised this split earlier in 2016 - which I was very happy about as my upland farm in the UK's Peak National Park is one of the only sites in the UK where the heavily persecuted hen harrier can still be seen!

A male harrier shows his displeasure at the chimango caracara flying through his territory

The harriers carry on courting as the sun sets over Patagonia. 


Ruff vs Pokemon

This is not the ruff I saw.

The ruff I saw wore a ruff unlike the ruff this ruff wore.

Nonetheless, a bird that breeds only a few miles from where I grew up, and which I'd not seen since a wintering flock in India 13 years ago, turned up at the DeKorte meadowlands yesterday.

It was brutally hot, even at 9am when I got the alert. I persuaded Margaux to come with me - promising she could catch some rare marsh Pokemon, and possibly chuck my phone into the water.

We arrived to find an active wader scene, with hundreds of semi-sands and good numbers of least, lifting and scattering among the more stately short-billed dowitchers and yellowlegs.

Dragging Margaux along the boardwalk, we passed a laughing sora and a distant pectoral sandpiper. Then, almost swimming through the heavy fetid air, to where the ruff was last seen, we found a group of locals who were clearly on the ruff. As someone quickly offered us newcomers a scope view, it flushed.

We all bailed back the way we'd come, getting on a hunting least bittern quickly. This is the first (and only) time I've dismissed a least bittern with such a perfunctory glance.

Rounding a phragmite island, we finally relocated the ruff as it foraged in deep water with a group of lesser and a couple of greater yellowlegs. Whilst it had moulted out of anything approaching breeding extravagance, the plumage retained some beautiful deep russet, black and white colors and the inimitable loose mantle feathers.

It took a while to help Margaux scan through the yellowlegs, but when she said; 'Oh is it the hairy one?' I knew she'd got on it.

A lifer for her (as are most things still, being only 6), and a US bird for me.

We drank it in, then lay in the shade, while I explained that ruff's are pretty cool because some males are faeders, having a autosomal-dominant allele that causes them to express female phenotypes their entire lives. And that this female mimicry is possibly a very clever mating strategy in a world gone mad with crazy ornamental plumage and constant lekking.

She didn't quite agree.

But she did forget about the Pokemon.

*Whoever's ruff picture this is, sorry for stealing it, but it was on google ;)


Year of the seagull

This is turning out to be a good year for gulls, for me. Having had both Kumliens and Glaucous on the Hudson river outside my apartment, this morning I turned up a Franklin's gull in a large flock of laughing gulls at Port Liberte.

I reckon this is one of the most under-rated and under-birded spots in the county. It doesn't help that the access is a bit unreliable, as you have to park in a gated community, which is ostensibly private. I keep the same visitor permit in my windshield that they gave me back in 2011, and it's worked out ok so far though! So much for security.

I walked through today to look for breeders, and harboring a wishful notion that the strong easterlies the night before may have pushed an interesting tern into the bay.

I found the Franklin's on the beach, foraging among horseshoe crabs. There were around 50 laughers present, and I had a fair bit of luck rather than careful scanning; those big white eye arcs just popped on the first pass!

With no camera, all i managed were a few cellphone shots. But it was cool to see a species familiar from wintering grounds up here at the opposite end of the continent. As the tide peaked the birds took flight occasionally. Franklins are the only gulls that moult twice a year - presumably an adaptation to the length of their migration. And whilst this bird was just finishing, it showed the classic wingtip pattern, as well as being noticeably smaller than its surrounding congeners.

Summer slowdown

Whilst birding here doesn't quite stop dead the way it did back in England, where July sees virtually everything go into moult and hiding, it's not exactly hopping. So I've been catching up on some reading, as well as the occasional foray to look for breeders.

Latest read is Clive Finlayson's epic tome. 

Drawing extensively on the fossil record, it shines a unique light on avian biogeography - and makes a convincing case for shifting distributions in response to climatic change, over the more expected speciation/extinction in situ.  

Well worth the read - I wish we had the same for the Western Hemisphere! 


Mourning Warbler

I saw my first mourning warbler nearly 15 years ago, on wintering grounds in Costa Rica. I don't actually remember it, partly because I saw 70 other species that day which included some of my favorite antbirds and other furnariids. And probably because as a South American birder I didn't really register that this was one of those 'special' warblers on the opposite side of the hemisphere.

Now I know why, as nemesis species go, mourning warbler seems to be a popular choice.

A friend of mine found one in lower Manhattan last year, by which point it was a bird I still hadn't seen in the States, so deigned to chase.

Instead, I found two Connecticut warblers, which most people would be stoked with.

But I just wanted my Mourning.

Then, 10 days ago, I heard one sing.

A week later I saw one. In flight. WTF. This is not a bird you want to see in flight.

Finally, today, one was being as cooperative as a MOWA can get. Which means people saw it, people heard it. People heard tape from other people. People saw other people see the bird.

I walked round the pocket of water (Upper Lobe in Central Park) for a few hours. It would only sing at hourly intervals. Usually just once. Less than helpful. Taunting, even. 

Gradually, people started to see it.

But, in the spirit of all great nemesis birds, wherever it was, I wasn't. And wherever I went, yellowthroats tricked me with rustles in the groundcover.

I even blithely ignored a gray-cheeked thrush that sauntered past.

Then, around midday, as I accepted it was 90 degrees, I needed food, and it hadn't sung for hours, it popped up.

I saw it sally. I saw it sing. I saw the sombre cloak of mourning. It lasted 5 seconds, but it was enough.

I even got a shitty iphone recording of the one song I actually saw it sing....

Mourning warbler song

Postscript: I realized looking through my records that I'd seen all of the 'wanted' warblers - golden-winged, prothonotary, kentucky etc first on wintering grounds (even after I'd moved to the USA, in the case of those three). Odd? I don't really know. I was probably lucky with the golden-wingeds given its population size and large wintering distribution.  


Curious Curassows

I snagged a copy of Lyncx Ediciones 'Curassows' monograph the other day. What a book!

When did you last see the downy young for every taxa illustrated in such beautiful detail?

Owl Pandemonium

It's a tough life for a newly fledged owl.

At one of my local micro-patches of woodland, the longtime resident great horned owls have raised two young. 

Fresh out the nest on its maiden voyage, this ball of fluff saw nature red-in-tooth-and-claw yesterday, in the imposing form of a mature redtail barreling out of the sky.

The first chase left the young owl stranded, wings caught agape in the crown of a high oak. After mewling for five minutes it finally struggled free in a shower of leaves.

The second chase showed how fast a learning curve these young birds have; this time the owl enticed his pursuer down under the crowns and skillfully flew through the canopy. The redtail made a couple of jinks on his tail but bailed upwards through a gap in the trees, thwarted. 

The mother owl cruised by shortly afterwards but didn't intervene in (or perhaps never saw) either of the redtail attacks.

The usual bluejays' badgering of the owl rose to a crescendo in the aftermath of the chase, with at least 6 of them orbiting the fledgling as he tried to recover his grace and composure. Emboldened by the owl's confusion, even a couple of warblers and chickadees joined in.

You never know what you'll see when you walk in the woods.


Iceland Gull vs Yellow-throated warbler

My new yard bird seems to be settling in. She's been here for over two weeks now. She's pure white, hinting at her arctic provenance. She's delicate, dainty even, yet nonchalantly aggressive with the herring gulls. Once in a while, she'll even deign to challenge the great black-backs.

She's an iceland gull; a first cycle bird so bleached she could be a white kumliens* or rare glaucoides.

In my wilderness-starved apartment, it's fun to wake up each morning, look through the window and see her on the pier, wandering among the loafing locals.

One day during her sojourn, a glaucous gull turned up, loafed a little, but didn't stay. The chances of me happening on this glaucous by chance among the 150 herrings and black-backs, had I not been scanning for the iceland, are very small.**

So, she also brought me a new county-bird, in the form of her bigger, badder cousin. Thank you.

(Contender for worst glaucous pic ever - cellphone + scope at 60x + bedroom window glass - but you can still see that inimitable beady glaucous eye) 

Finally, a few days ago, I saw her over on the Manhattan side, while on the way to twitch a yellow-throated warbler in Central Park.

Two birds I'd never have expected to see on the same day, let alone both in Manhattan.

* Iceland gull taxonomy is a mess. My view would be that there are two species - Thayers in the west (darkest) and nominate Iceland in the east (palest), with kumliens representing a hybrid swarm between the two. But this is unproven, based on sampling on wintering not breeding grounds, ungrounded in any kind of molecular analysis, and wrought by many phenotypic issues. Not least like the one represented by this bird, which is closer to glaucoides than kumliens in many plumage details.  

**Moral of that story - when you see a screech of gulls, give it a quick look!


Field Sparrow

My office patch, the Clinton Community Garden on 48th and 10th, has exploded in the last few days. New beehives are up and active. Insects are hatching everywhere. And this cutie turned up, my first for the year!


healing wildlife

Liverpool Neurological Hospital is now a better place for recuperating patients, with their recent installation of some of my brother's images.

Following a special commission for local wildlife from the hospital, Ben's shots now adorn the walls,

and even the ceiling - in the form of two giant backlit mosaics! 

About Me

My photo
NYC, Buxton, Buenos Aires
I work in NYC and own a wildlife and wilderness agency specializing in the southern cone of South America. I still do some guiding down there, especially looking for Fuegian and Patagonian avifauna. I'm particularly interested in the wintering ecology of neotropical migrants, and in avian biogeography in general. You can follow me at - @domhall And find me at - AventuraArgentina.com